A reader writes:
I'm a reporter working in Asheville, and I've been surprised by the amount of national play this manufactured "controversy" has gotten, given that there's no serious attempt to remove City Council member Cecil Bothwell from office.
The Citizen-Times' article that began the controversy cited unnamed "critics" that wanted Bothwell barred from taking office due to his atheism, but it quoted only one person: H.K. Edgerton. While Edgerton's been referred to as a former President of the NAACP in many articles and posts about this controversy, that sidelines what he's been best known for locally and elsewhere: brandishing a Confederate flag and marching around extolling the virtues of the antebellum South. He is, to put mildly, not a mainstream figure. Even in the initial article, even he didn't say he was going to press a lawsuit, just that, based on his rather unique views of the U.S. Constitution, he didn't think Bothwell could hold office.
Eventually the Citizen-Times did find another Bothwell critic for a follow-up piece: the publisher of the far-right Asheville Tribune, a small circulation tabloid best known for running multi-part defenses of secession, slavery and the Crusades. Again, not exactly a mainstream threat. Furthermore, Bothwell doesn't even call himself an atheist, but a "post-theist." He attends a Unitarian church. The assertion about his atheism was based on the reporter looking up a long-defunct Myspace page.
When Bothwell took his oath of office, along with the other elected council members and the re-elected mayor, there was not one bit of serious dispute over his right to take his seat. No one shouted, no one heckled him. No one's tried to press a lawsuit. The city attorney's office is completely unconcerned. No one on council, including the conservative Democrat, the sole Republican and our outspokenly Christian mayor, tried to oppose him. He got his round of applause and at his first full meeting, on Dec. 15, exercised his rights to speak and vote just like every other council member.
However, the "controversy" has blown up. Since this started, I've seen the false assertion on numerous blogs (usually atheist) that Bothwell was prevented from taking office (he wasn't) and that Asheville "needs to join the 21st century," though our city populace and government seem just fine with Bothwell's religious views or lack thereof.
Atheists, like many members of minority creeds, do face incidences of discrimination. This isn't one of them. But it's abundantly clear that the grumbling of one or two fringe figures and some sloppy newspaper articles now make a national shouting match, as long as it's about atheism. Good to know.